In August 2018, I was in Gujarat, visiting two of Rang De’s partner organisations in Surendarnagar and Dahod districts. A month prior to that, I had spent a few days in southern part of Udaipur district in Rajasthan visiting our partner organisation in Kotra block, and I couldn’t help but reflect on the similarities and differences between the two states.
Among all the communities that we currently work with, the community in Rajasthan is possibly the most deprived. Primarily a tribal community, they reside on scattered hillocks in Kotra, a region that lacks access to roads, electricity, irrigation facilities and other basic amenities. We had provided loans for solar electrification of a few households in the region and I had travelled there to understand the reason for the repayments being behind schedule.
In most households in the region, the absence of a steady source of livelihood means that the men migrate every season to the neighbouring state of Gujarat for work. Poor irrigation facilities means limited food production (the terrain itself is rocky and difficult to cultivate) and the low literacy levels means that the labour force is largely unskilled.
Yet, each home we visited shared the positive impact and difference that having a basic electricity connection had made to their lives. A snake had made its way into the home of one family after dark – and the two solar powered bulbs installed in their home helped them spot it before anyone came to harm.
Another family had tampered with the installed lighting systems to hook a pair of speakers and blast out some Rajasthani folk music, as the family pottered around. This particular family ended up getting chastised by the partner organisation for their ingenious efforts (tampering may affect the battery life of the installed system).
Given the circumstance, it seemed incredibly naïve to speak to them about their habit of savings. Nevertheless, I tried. I was met with grunts and some nods but I could see that they only heard me out because I was an outsider.
I didn’t make an effort again, not because it wasn’t important to talk to them about it, but because it required a longer conversation – not a half-baked lecture given during a flying visit.
Across the border: travelling to Dahod, Gujarat
Kotra block is quite close to the Gujarat state border, and I kept hearing that the only way to be sure whether one was in Gujarat or Rajasthan was to observe the electricity pole. In Rajasthan, the electricity poles were solid, cast in cement whereas in Gujarat, the cement blocks were tapering poles with the middle sections strategically hollowed out.
The underlying implication being that the enterprising Gujarati mind had figured out a way to achieve the same goal (erection of poles for electrification) at a fraction of the cost, a compliment to the skills and ability of the Gujarati community surely.
During the visit, I wondered what it was like for men who migrate to Gujarat seasonally: to engage in back-breaking labour work for months on end but with some modern comforts (including a reliable electricity and water supply) and then to come back home to the harsh reality of their villages in Rajasthan, where they spend their evenings by the light of a kerosene lamp. In some ways, it must be like stepping through a time machine.
Yet, things weren’t all perfect in Gujarat as well. While the road between Ahmedabad and Dahod was smooth – we covered nearly 240 kms in three hours, but the absence of a good public education system meant that inequities persist.
Dahod district has a significant tribal population – the day I arrived, there was a celebration to mark the “International Day of the World’s Indigenous People”. I was told that over the years, such celebrations have helped instil pride in the tribal communities about their own rituals and culture. At the same time, there was a fear that as politicians courted the community, this restoration of pride was becoming a cause for polarisation, as evidenced by the scattered instances of looting the day after the festival.
In Dahod, we met a few farmers who had taken loans to purchase cattle – for them, the best part was that they were given a chance to inspect and choose which animal to buy themselves. Earlier, they had limited options to choose from. Now, these farmers also got to observe the manner in which the cattle traders took care of the animals to ensure a better yield. No one had shown them how to earlier.
Armed with knowledge, the farmers seemed confident in their ability to service their loans and were hopeful that once the existing loans were repaid, they would receive another one to continue the activity.
Just like in Kotra, the men from Dahod would earlier migrate to nearby cities in Gujarat for work. In the absence of irrigation facilities, they could harvest only one crop a year at most. I was told that the bus terminal in Dahod is one of the busiest in the whole of Gujarat because of the sheer number of buses that connect the district to all the major commercial centres in the state.
But things have changed in Dahod, thanks in part to the work that has been done by the NM Sadguru Foundation.
The Foundation has set up localised water management bodies – Lift Irrigation Cooperatives – that allows farmers to harvest more than one crop a year. These Lift Irrigation cooperatives follow a sustainable model and facilitate collective decision making about the harvesting and pricing of water resources. Such cooperatives have fostered accountability and democratic decision-making and are now being replicated in the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh as well.
Incidentally, Dahod is one of seven districts in Gujarat that is classified under the “Poorest 250 districts in India”. What it does have in common with Kotra is a significant tribal population. And that’s a pattern that we see across the country, whereby historically disadvantaged communities continue to perform poorly, 71 years after independence, when it comes to development indices such as Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) as well as other metrics such as per capita income or literacy levels.
Most of us have been conditioned to believe that the ‘trickle-down’ model of development works. Perhaps it does, and I am not an economist to argue about the merits or demerits of that particular theory. But as we made our way back to Udaipur city late one evening, the driver and I couldn’t help but agree that for the families living on the rugged hillocks of Kotra, the wait for the trickle of development has been too long.
By Tanvi Negi
Tanvi Negi is the Chief Impact Office at Rang De. She visited the Kotra Adivasi Sansthan in Kotra, Rajasthan and the NM Sadguru Foundation in Dahod, Gujarat between July and August 2018.